County fire departments launch training academy

Fifteen Anoka County Fire Departments are now participating in their largest joint venture ever, a shared training academy.

The academy will reduce training costs, implement a common training strategy and build a countywide network among firefighters who only see each other on emergency scenes, according to Centennial Fire District Chief Jerry Streich, director of the academy.

All new firefighters within the county will receive their initial training at the academy and classes will expand to all county firefighters in the near future. The first class of 30 started Aug. 21.

Streich founded the academy after a year and a half of research on training and recruitment issues that were occurring in the county. “One of the biggest issues the academy addresses is a training date to hire to,” said Streich.

In the past, each fire department would set up their own training with a private vendor, according to Streich.

If they did not have 10 or more firefighters to train, it would not be profitable for the vendor and the departments would have to wait for the training, Streich said.

“In the meantime the newly hired firefighter was not properly trained to act as a firefighter,” he said. “This is dangerous and not productive. We now have two initial training dates established each year (January and August) for initial training.”

Every fire department in the county is participating in the training academy program.

Streich’s research also concluded there was a need to hire 236 new firefighters over the next four years for fire departments to remain adequately staffed.

Attrition, time commitment and the economy have all been identified as reasons the county will lose so many firefighters, Streich said.

To assist in the recruitment of those volunteer or on-call firefighters, Streich wrote a grant request to the Department of Homeland Security Staffing for Adequate Firefighter Response (SAFER) program and recently received $1,157,491 for the project.

According to the National Volunteer Firefighter Council, over 88 percent of firefighters in the country are volunteers protecting over 40 percent of the population.

The council predicts it would cost taxpayers $37.2 billion per year if cities had to replace volunteers with career firefighters.

The grant focuses on recruiting and retaining firefighters and has no city cost share or no obligation to continue the program after the four years.

It will fund physicals, new equipment, training, books and more for each of the new firefighters that attends the academy over that time.

“I am ecstatic that we received those funds,” said Streich.

“It essentially means every new hire over the next four years will come to the cities nearly free of cost.”

It is not uncommon for a new hire to cost a municipality $6,500 to get certified and working, according to Streich.

The cost to train a new firefighter at a local college is approximately $1,850, Streich said.

The academy will be able to reduce that cost by $1,000 per firefighter, he said.

It will also reduce the costs of books and equipment needed to training by each fire department as well, Streich said.

The grant will also pay for a full-time recruitment coordinator for four years to assist Streich in managing and implementing the grant programs.

The academy uses veteran emergency responders from around the county as instructors.

Fire chiefs and even the county emergency manager participate in the training allowing the new hires to learn from some of the top leaders in the county.

There are more than 650 firefighters in Anoka County. Over 90 percent of them are either volunteers or paid a small hourly rate as on-call firefighters.

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